In my few other cookbook reviews I’ve mentioned that I read cookbooks like I would a normal book–before I even think about making something from a new book I’ll read every recipe and all the stories that go along with them. Cooking and baking has always been a very personal thing for me, since spending time in the kitchen is my other stress relief when I’m not reading. In the past few weeks I’ve baked an orange gingerbread cake with cream cheese frosting, a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, zucchini bread, and tried four new weeknight dinner recipes using new-to-me vegetables (I don’t hate turnips and rutabagas, who knew?). And one book I keep coming back to for inspiration is The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman, whom I was thrilled to see speak in Portland last year.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

I started reading the Smitten Kitchen blog three or so years ago, and was instantly hooked. She cooked the kind of food I wanted but didn’t know how to make, featuring lots of vegetables and a focus on seasonal items. She’s not vegetarian by any means (and neither am I) but so many of her recipes have introduced me to new vegetables I never ate growing up, including my current obsession with leeks. Many of her recipes had a story about the family member of friend who shared it, the restaurant meal she was trying to recreate, or a frantic need to get dinner on the table that night with a random collection of things in the pantry; when her book came out, I hoped that the same tone Deb created on her blog would carry over into print. And I’m happy to say it has.

My absolute favorite recipe that I’ve made so far is the Mustard Milanese with Arugula Fennel Salad, page 169, although I served mine with lemon garlic roasted Brussels sprouts instead because I don’t like arugula. I will admit I doubled the amount of Dijon mustard used to coat the chicken, because my husband is crazy like that. There are also many recipes I still haven’t tried including Chocolate Chip Brioche Pretzels (page 17), Slow-Cooker Black Bean Ragout (page 137), Panchetta, White Bean, and Swiss Chard Pot Pies (page 163), and Gooey Cinnamon Squares (page 207). If anyone has tried one of these, or any of the recipes from this book, I’d love to hear what you thought!

And while the food is great, it really is her sense of story and family behind each recipe that keeps me coming back to this book. Despite being nervous, Deb was a great speaker when I saw her in Portland. She answered tons of questions, was patient with the large line of people waiting for autographs, and even gave me a hug in congrats when she heard I was getting married in a few weeks! When I cook from her recipes, I remember a woman who was so passionate about food that she turned a crazy little blog into a career and best-selling cookbook and hope that I can get some of that same passion in my own food. I cook to relax, and with the recipes from Deb in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook I know I’ll have food worth washing the dishes.

In only slightly book related news, I got engaged a few weeks ago! While it wasn’t a surprise (at the start of the year we had a long discussion about our financial goals for 2012 and the main topic was debt payment vs. saving for a wedding…debt payment won and we’ll be doing a very small, affordable wedding), I’m still extremely happy. I’m also excited to finally share a great wedding planning book for anyone else in the market for a wedding book that won’t drive you crazy with expensive “must have” lists!

 

A Practical Wedding

A Practical Wedding: Creative Solutions for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable, and Meaningful Celebration by Meg Keene, is a wonderful off-shoot of Keene’s wedding blog by the same name. Truthfully, I started reading the APW blog about a year before we got engaged–unlike every other wedding blog I’ve found on the internet, Keene writes from the perspective that having a strong, healthy relationship is absolutely essential to having a good wedding. So while there are posts about pretty dresses and flowers, there are also posts on navigating a multi-cultural relationship, learning to put your relationship first even when you’re a people pleaser, and how to reconcile being a wife/mother and a feminist.

Keene started the blog while she was planning her own wedding in 2009, as a way to vocalize her confusion with what she calls the “wedding industrial complex”–why the wedding industry focuses so much on spending money for the best flowers/cater/reception site/dress/dessert bar/whatever to have a great wedding, instead strengthening the relationship between the two people getting married. So when she says that the colors don’t matter and the cheap chairs are just as good as the expensive ones, she’s speaking from experience.

When it comes to budget (one of the largest issues for almost every engaged couple), Keene suggests making two lists–one list of things you absolutely must have, and one list of things you don’t care about as much. She then gives your permission to get the best you can afford on the “must have” list, and spend the absolute minimum or even cut the “don’t care” items. For my fiance and I, our must have list was basically family and good food (good=local, organic, mostly vegetarian). Items on our don’t care list included flowers, a fancy dress, and wedding favors. After reading A Practical Wedding we’ve decided on a small courthouse wedding and dinner with our closest family and friends to work within my future sister-in-law’s schedule, I won’t wear a traditional wedding dress, and my bouquet will be roses made from book pages made by my future mother-in-law. While it’s not the choice all of my family and friend’s would make or understand, it’s the right choice for us; and as a bonus, Keene includes ways to explain sometimes controversial wedding choices to people in a way that makes everyone feel loved.

In my favorite section, Keene also addresses the seemingly endless list of wedding traditions. She debunks some common wedding practices (white dresses, unity candles, and sit down dinners) which only became “traditions” in recent years. Her research shows a simple wedding at home, in your best clothes, with closest friends and family for a punch and cake reception is the most traditional American wedding despite what the modern wedding industry tries to say. My fiance (yes, I made him read the book too) enjoyed the chapter called “The Real Purpose of the Engagement” because it gives a great number of topics to discuss to strengthen your relationship before you get married.

What you won’t find in A Practical Wedding are detailed spread sheets, dozens of budget suggestions, and a list of this season’s hot styles.  By focusing on the relationship at the heart of the wedding, Keene takes the stress and frustration of planning a wedding and turns it into a team-building time to start exploring your new life together. For the bride-to-be like me who starts to panic when looking at bridal magazines and budgets of tens thousands of dollars, you can’t find a better book than Meg Keene’s A Practical Wedding.

This book was hands down my favorite so far in the Dresden Files series. I think it took me all of three days (reading only at night after work) to finish it, with maybe a one “staying up way too late on a work night but I promise I’ll stop after this chapter!” night. I’ve always loved vampire stories and Blood Rites, book six of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, explores a different side of the vampire culture Butcher has created in so much depth.

Blood Rites

The case Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, takes doesn’t seem obviously vampire at the start. A popular movie director believes he is the target of an entropy curse (basically a chaotic hate curse that will do anything to harm the target) and hires Harry to protect the set of his new movie. In typically Harry fashion he agrees to the case before realizing his new client is the director of adult films, creating great discomfort for Harry and his persistent chivalry. Whether or not the women he’s protecting are naked, Harry is determined to make the movie set safe because this particular curse is extremely deadly.

The vampire aspects comes in with Thomas, Harry’s vampire friend who convinced him to take the case. Thomas is flippant and hyper-sexual, but fiercely loyal to his family and friends. They have remained friends through the vampire/wizard war and several other cases when being associated with Harry could hurt people, although they often don’t get along. And it turns out Thomas and his family are involved in the adult film industry, along with several other business adventures, Harry is understandably upset that Thomas tricked him into the job. As more women are put in danger and Thomas’ family starts to feel threatened by the investigation, Harry is determined to help his friend and the movie cast survive despite the growing danger.

While I can’t give away the most amazing part of the book without spoiling the big plot twist (I cannot wait to read the next book in the series!), Blood Rites shows yet another side of Harry–a softer, more trusting side that struggles to actually address his feelings instead of using sarcasm as a shield. One of the best parts of Butcher’s series is how, six books into it, Harry Dresden continues to evolve and change. Many mystery/murder series that I’ve read have a static main character and only change the plot around that person; Butcher shows new sides of Harry that change how he interacts with the people in his cases, and it’s refreshing to see!

The public library in my hometown is incredibly small, and I often would work my way through an entire section of books over a few months. I finished all the interesting children’s books, then the small chapter books, then the young adult section, and then the fantasy/science fiction section. Orson Scott Card was the last sci-fi author I discovered before my teachers pressured me to stop reading it my freshman year, and I’ve always loved his work. Ender’s Game was the first one I read, mainly because the library had the entire series–a rare find in my small town. Although I was 14 at the time, I could instantly identify with six-year-old Ender Wiggins, and must have read the book four or five times in high school because I couldn’t forget the story of Ender.

Ender's Game

Ender’s Game is the first book of the Ender Wiggins Saga, a series about children leading wars in space. Of course that’s about as simplistic of an explanation as you can give, because it’s much more about how intelligent and adult children can be and how well (or not) they can handle the pressure adults put on them…the laser guns and aliens are just a bonus. Ender’s Game starts at the end of the war against the buggers, ant-like aliens that have attacked the human world. Because children are willing to take risks and think outside the box, the government starts training potential military leaders in a space station Battle School. Cut off from their families and friends until graduation, these elite children are the Earth’s only hope for survival.

But Ender’s difficult life didn’t start with the pressures of Battle School. He is a “third,” a third child in a world that legally limits families to two children only. Both of Ender’s siblings (his brother Peter and sister Valentine) had extremely high potential but were ultimately unable to enter Battle School. In hopes that a third child would combine Peter and Valentine’s best characteristics, the US government allowed Ender’s parents to have another child. In a society that claimed his existence was illegal and immoral, Ender grew up trusting very few people. Even in Battle School, where Ender quickly became the most successful commander in school history, Ender was systematically isolated from his fellow students.

Yet Ender’s Game is less about children leading space wars and more about the maturity and intelligence of children. Although the main character starts as a six-year-old, the way Ender thinks is barely related to similarly aged characters in picture books. Ender may be six years old, but he is as self-aware and critical as any adult. His life, although set in space, are something any gifted child can relate to: he is praised by adults for his intelligence, but still treated like a small child incapable of making decisions. In the introduction, Card mentions the strong reactions from young readers who identified so strongly with the character of Ender:

Of course, I’m always glad when people like a story of mine; but something much more important was going on here. These readers found that Ender’s Game was not merely a “mythic” story, dealing with general truths, but something much more personal: To them, Ender’s Game was an epic tale, a story that expressed who they were as a community, a story that distinguished them from other people around them. They didn’t love Ender, or pity Ender (a frequent  adult response); they were Ender, all of them. Ender’s experience was not foreign or strange to them; in their minds, Ender’s life was echoed in their own lives. The truth of the story was not truth in general, but their truth (xxii).

Although written by an adult, Ender’s Game so perfectly articulates the way gifted children think about themselves. I’m by no means smart enough to lead a world’s military into battle, but I was always one of the most talented students in my classes. I could understand Ender’s isolation, his longing for the easy friendship the other children shared. And that’s the strength of Card’s writing–he makes a child leading the human race in a war against aliens an instant confidant and best friend.

Ender’s Game gets better every time I read it, despite not being in the target audience anymore. Ender is one of my favorite characters of all time, my beat up copy of the book is one I plan on keeping for a long time. I’ve encouraged my brother and my friends to read Ender’s Game, and would honestly encourage most everyone to read this book. For those who understand the frustration of being different, singled out by parents and teachers, you can’t find a better friend than Ender.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking at my book collection, wondering if I should sell/donate some of them. I have piles and piles of new books to read and nowhere to put them! At the beginning of the summer I donated most of the children’s and young adult books I have outgrown, but there are still so many more. In an effort to get organized (and to figure out which books I love the most), I created this list of my favorite books and authors; this list only includes a series if I have finished all the books and consists mainly of books I own or borrowed recently. Where possible, I have provided the link to my review of the book or author.

Please create your own list in the comments–I enjoy hearing about the books other people love! And feel free to suggest books I have forgotten or ignored, as this list is in no way finalized.

Fantasy

Favorite Books: The Symphony of Ages series, by Elizabeth Haydon; The Sharing Knife series, by Lois McMaster Bujold, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling; The Lord of The Rings series, by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King

Favorite Authors: Brandon Sanderson, George R. R. Martin, Tamora Pierce, Anne Rice

Science Fiction

Favorite Books: Dune, by Frank Herbert

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Favorite Authors: Orson Scott Card

Classic Literature

Favorite Books: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë; Lolita, by Vladmire Nabokov; The Oresteian Trilogy, by Aeschylus; Beowulf (the Seamus Heaney translation); To Kill A Mocking Bird, by Harper Lee; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser; The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (John Ciardi translation)

Favorite Authors: Upton Sinclair, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Alexandre Dumas,

Literature/Fiction

Favorite Books: The Chosen, by Chaim Potok; The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami; the Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko

Favorite Authors: Margaret Atwood, James Patterson, Richard Bach, Lori Wick, Ann Patchett

Cooking and Food

Favorite Books: Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell; My Life in France, by Julia Child

Historical Fiction

Favorite Books: The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

Favorite Authors: Ann Rinaldi

Music

Favorite Books:  Let Furry Have The Hour, by Antonino D’Ambrosio; The History of Jazz, by Ted Gioia

Sociology

Favorite Books: Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons; Anti-Semite and Jew, by Jean-Paul Sartre; Subculture: The Meaning of Style, by Dick Bebdige

Distopia

Favorite Books: 1984, by George Orwell; Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Two weeks ago I read Julie & Julia, a book I greatly enjoyed. In one of the comments, a reader suggested that I also read My Life in France by Julia Child (with Alex Prud’Homme), as it was the book that helped influence both the book and movie version of Julie & Julia. One my recent trip to the public library My Life in France was at the top of my “cannot leave the library without these books” list, and I’m so glad I got this book! I read it in just a few sittings, three in fact. The first sitting got me five pages short of the half-way mark; the second got my within 30 pages of the end; and the third took hardly any time last night to finish the book before bed.

My Life in France

This book is exactly what the title says: Julia Child’s life in France. In the fall of 1948 she moved to Paris with her husband, Paul Child, for his government job. He worked as a part public relations consultant between the US and France, and part art director. While Julia had lived abroad before because of her government job, she had never been in France before, and instantly fell in love. Through reading this book, I also feel in love with France! This book was written, with the help of Paul’s grandnephew Alex, in the last years before Julia’s death, and is a wonderful combination of the history of French food and her journey to publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I and II, and her wonderful life filled with friends and family. The organization of the book is loosely chronological; it reads just like a conversation with a person who has lived a full and exciting life, and includes many interruptions to the main story of their French adventures to mention friends, family, and events that had happened before their move. Although I like highly organized books and would normally be irritated by this, the writing style was so conversational and relaxed, I found it impossible to be annoyed at the amazing Julia Child!

The book includes many black and white photos from her life, many of which were taken by Paul. The provide a wonderfully personal look into her life. The book covers a great span of time, and includes stories from their life several French towns, her time at the Cordon Bleu school, their time in Germany, and their move back to the US and the creation of her television show. Despite all the traveling the couple did over the years, their lives revolved around food–eating at the best restaurants, befriending the most famous chefs and wine collectors, and constant cooking and teaching. Julia’s passion for her work comes across perfectly in the book, and every time she talked about cooking a dish I felt inspired to go whip up one myself! Along with the food talk, her stories about France make it sound perfect. The markets she visited daily are full of great characters who are always willing to teach curious buyers about their food. The French people she describes are friendly, incredibly knowledgeable about their food, and always willing to talk with those who are passionate about food.

I’ve never been to France (in fact, I’ve never been outside the US), but this book certainly sparked my wanderlust. The country side, as seen through Julia’s eyes, sounds like a fairy land. The people she knew were by turns funny, helpful, and lively. The passion she had for life comes through so perfectly, I believe this may be one of the best memoirs I have ever read. For anyone who loves food or travel, and anyone looking for a book that makes them happy to be alive, I greatly recommend this book.

First things first–the title of this book is really long, so for the fist time I’ve cheated a bit and did not include the full book title in the blog post title. But just so I feel better, here is the full title in all its insanely long glory…Julie and Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, and Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living. I know there is now a movie based on this book, but honestly I have not seen it yet (that’s not for lack of interest, just a lack of opportunity and cheap movies in Boston). After reading this book,  my desire to see the movie is back. For those of you who have seen the movie, was it any good? And for those who have read the book and seen the movie, how does it do on following the storyline?

Julie & Julia

This book was one of my favorite finds in the carload (yes, a legitimate carload, as in the trunk and back seat were full) of books the boy and I adopted from his family (thank you thank you thank you!). Well, this book and a cookbook aptly titled Everything Tastes Better With Bacon. As you all know by now, I love food and all the wonderful cookbooks and foodie books that go with that obsession. How five years managed to pass without my reading this book I am not sure, but I am overjoyed to have finally finished it. The first day I started to read, I actually got through 160 pages and considered staying up the rest of the night to finish the last 147 pages, but logic and the need for sleep stopped me.

This book is about the year Julie Powell, unhappy secretary in a government agency in NYC, turned 30 and decided to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One.  She hates her job, cannot get pregnant, and lives in a horrible apartment, so of course the logical decision is to spend a year learning to cook and blogging about it (come to think of it, I don’t think I would mind doing this).  Despite opposition from her mother and several friends, Julie is convinced that at the end of the year she will have realized the meaning of life.

Given how crazy the Julie/Julia Project is, you can imagine what kind of character she is: foul-mouthed, short-tempered, stubborn, and often hysterical. Her brutal honesty about life and cooking was so refreshing, I wish I was friends with her! I also wish I was brave enough to learn French cooking. Word of warning: Julie is a democrat, and she curses constantly, so read this book with a very open mind if either one will offend you.

Overall, this was a great book. Not the most wonderfully written bit of prose ever, but it had everything on my “what makes a book readable” checklist: funny and realistic characters I love, cats, food, sarcasm, a great setting, and a fast-paced story line, among others. For a lazy weekend like mine, this book was perfect. For my next lazy weekend, I am on a mission to find the movie and a recipe for crepes.